One in four kids is estimated to have anxiety, which has risen steadily since COVID-19. Its symptoms can be baffling from no longer wanting to participate in previously enjoyed activities to a loss of appetite. It would be too simple to blame it on the pandemic as the rates of anxiety were climbing in kids even before this. The challenge is that sometimes anxiety is part of healthy development but more often than not it is a sign of distress and interferes with sleep, schoolwork, and relationships. The question is, what can we do when our kids are full of anxiety? What is our role in bringing them to rest so they can learn, play, and be happy again?
Key Sources of Anxiety for Kids Today
Anxiety is not a malevolent force as it is made out to be. It is part of the brain’s sophisticated alarm system that is activated when things are changing. Yes, that’s right. It’s not just about danger and unsafety. Consider when you became a parent, went on vacation, or started a new job – the alarm was there to guide you safely. Alarm is a hardwired, subcortical emotion in the brain that is there to serve our survival and growth. The problem is when it gets too loud or stuck, we will have problems with everyday functioning and sometimes experience unrelenting distress.
What we can’t lose sight of is that emotions are not problems but are trying to solve them. There are three common reasons for heightened alarm in kids today: healthy growth and development, dominance problems, and peer orientation.
Healthy development – There are key periods in life when the brain and body undergo physical and psychological changes, including preschool, teenage years, parenthood, mid-life, and elder years. At each phase of development, the changes bring corresponding shifts in our identity. These changes are significant and can involve having more expectations placed on us, more freedom, increased awareness, and separation from people and things we are attached to.
- Preschoolers – Young children are driven to be close and connected to people who will take care of them so separation will be provocative. They need to attach to their childcare provider, family members, or anyone who will care for them. If development is ideal, by the time they are three they will have a growing sense of themselves as a separate being, giving rise to statements such as, “I do it myself.” While they may stubbornly try to venture out on their own, it comes at a price of increased alarm. They may run back to you and cling after exploring or need you more at bedtime.
The more solid they grow as a separate self, the better they can weather the separations that are part of life – like going to school or bedtime.
- Teenage years – The challenge for the tween or teen is they are leaving childhood behind but are not able to function in the world as an adult. Their brain increases their awareness level making them more self-conscious and overwhelmed. From making decisions about their future work, education, and peer relationships, to becoming a sexual being – the amount of change is incredible. The fast-paced, outcome-driven, digital world we raise our kids in often doesn’t leave enough space or time for reflection and to sort through their feelings. Alarm and anxiety are big in the teen years, and sometimes kids get stuck in these stress reactions and need our help to find a way out.
Dominance Problems – Bossy, commanding, demanding, and competitive are a few of the descriptors parents and educators report when there are dominance problems with kids. Escalating frustration and resistance in both adult and child/teen turn everyday requests and transitions into battlegrounds. There are increased levels of anxiety with some kids struggling to pay attention in school or lacking concentration at home. Sometimes the child or teen behaves well for their teachers at school only to boss and command parents at home – mostly directed at their closest attachments. At the end of the day, their parents are exhausted, and the kids feel insatiable. The natural parenting relationship is challenged as kids try to take the lead and tell others how to care for them or to orchestrate their caretaking.
Sometimes adults come down harder on these kids, while others give up. It isn’t until they make sense of how the leadership tables got turned in the home that they can make headway. Working with parents to reclaim their rightful place in a child’s life takes time and includes being both caring and firm. Kids with dominance problems have anxiety but it is important to see the roots of it and tackle it from there.
Peer Orientation – The greatest source of wounding for our kids today – in fact, the greatest disordered attachment present among our kids is from their relating to each other. Kids now move in peer packs, with clear hierarchies that establish rules, and values, giving rise to their peer group subculture. Kids who are outsiders or are more adult-oriented are vulnerable to wounding from peer-oriented leaders or group members. The adult relationships that were meant to protect and shield a child’s emotional system from the toxic relating among peers are being eroded through the onset of digital devices and societal norms that do not work to preserve the child/adult relationship.
The tribalizing of our children has only escalated since covid, taking a dark turn towards more frustration and aggression being directed at their peers. The classroom or playground once seen as a safe haven is now fraught with relational wounding. Peer-oriented kids no longer turn to their adults for guidance, comfort, and belonging, and are full of anxiety as their existence is precarious and they are subject to peer wounding.
Why is it important we understand the roots of anxiety?
When the emotional system is in overdrive and the brain is alarmed, making it hard to learn and to grow. Healthy development is built upon vulnerable feelings. When more tender feelings go missing it is often a sign of distress. Kids need to be at rest to grow and caring relationships with adults are key to this. Our kids were never meant to make themselves feel safe or to go it alone. They need to anchor into us so we can provide the rest they need so they can realize their full human potential.
The way we find our way through is to make sense of where the alarm stems from. When we understand the roots we can make headway with developmental strategies that preserve relationship and their growth.
You can’t make headway with problems you don’t understand. Insight rather than quick fixes is needed.
Parents and other caring adults are the answer when they strengthen their relationship with a child or teen, make room for tears, cultivate courage, take the lead on the alarm, and introduce emotional playgrounds to discharge heightened emotion. Traditional approaches to treating anxiety can sideline adults in the child’s life instead of supporting them to play a key role in their child’s emotional well-being. The rates of increasing anxiety and distress in our kids requires us to listen to what is being said and to realize that we are the answer our kids need.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a clinical counsellor with over 25 years of experience helping families. She is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), Nourished: Connection, food, and caring for our kids (and everyone else we love), and the children’s picture book, The Sorry Plane.